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Isolation and hope

January 5, 2010 2 comments

On the bus home from New York City for Christmas, I sat next to quite a strange man. He was very tall, and had dreadlocks, and carried with him a set of bongo drums. He was a musician, and had some interesting views on the history of music, which he was not shy about sharing with me. I’m not so familiar with that subject, but it seemed, at first, as if he knew what he was talking about. He seemed like an authority on the subject; a bit eccentric, but an authority nonetheless. He also told me quite a bit about his strange life, his various unorthodox personal philosophies. As the night went on, the topic of conversation drifted to things like politics, history, and science, and gradually his ideas became less and less plausible. This man subscribed to a number of different conspiracy theories, as well as strange beliefs about meditation, and inner spiritual revelation, and Einstein, to whom he compared himself several times. I won’t bore you with any more of the details (not much of it seemed, in the end, very original). I’ll just say that, for him, his whole confidence in the truth of his own beliefs seemed predicated on the idea that the common man–or more specifically, the common American–was hopelessly stupid, whereas he, in contrast, was a truly original genius.

It is always unsettling to me to meet people like this. I mean people that are despairingly wrapped up in their own self-importance, and in particular in their own conception of their own penetrating intellect, in comparison with that of others. People who, as Chesterton says, doubt everyone except themselves. It is unsettling because it is not a totally foreign thing to me, to see myself as essentially smarter than everyone else, as having a direct line, by virtue of something in myself, to all the answers that the ignorant sheep have missed. I see some of myself in that man. I see how mental elitism tends to isolate a person–or falls upon people who are isolated, spiritually.

I know this from personal experience, very early on in my adult life. I only vaguely remember the event that I am thinking of. It was a late night philosophical discussion on my best friend Nick’s porch. I was a young and developing thinker, and proud, and also probably had had quite a number of beers. I do not remember the exact content of the discussion. But I remember that it concerned something I perceived to be of fundamental importance in my self-righteous quest for truth and that, unable to persuade my best friend of the basic reality of what I saw, I was suddenly convinced that no one, ever, would be able to see things in the way that I do. At that moment, arrogance transformed itself into despair, and I actually broke down in tears, real tears. I think this is because I felt totally alone in my own reality, my own understanding of things. I consider this moment, looking back on it, to be a grace, a gift of God, because I saw the despair inherent in the arrogant position I had placed myself in. I saw, vaguely at least, that my mind was not enough to either obtain or communicate the truth, and that it is an awful thing to be alone in your own reality.

That, however, is actually somewhat the position of all of us, whoever we are. A sort of isolation. Similar themes came to mind for me the other night as I watched an extraordinarily despairing film, titled Synecdoche, New York. The whole story (if one could call it a story) of the film seemed to me to be an exercise in wallowing in the despair of being unable to construct meaning for oneself. The basic themes were death, perpetual sickness, the apparent meaninglessness of existence, and the gradual isolation of the individual, in spite of his best efforts, culminating in his eventual death. I am told that people tend to react in two ways to this film: either they find it comedic, or utterly depressing. There are clearly comedic elements to the film, as in the case of must absurd existentialist work. But I seem to have fallen mostly in the latter camp, though I don’t think it is quite right to say that I found the film itself depressing, at least not in a direct way. Rather, what made me sad was the very fact that such a film could make a person depressed, as it has for so many who have experienced it. Because the film presents a view of reality that is true to many people, in that it is a natural consequence of what we modern people believe about reality already.

I am also told that I, perhaps, took the film too seriously. As I have said, I can see the comedy of it, the humor in the existential absurdity it presents, similar in tone to the works of Kafka. But I still say that such projects are fundamentally the product of despair, and produce despair. They strongly point to the darkness of mind that was able to conceive of such a thing, and point others to a similar state of mind. Now, the willingness to conceive such things is not, in itself, a bad thing–I think it is good for art to be honest about who we are. And I think it is good to face the questions that the film raises. Films like this are valuable because they alert us to the fact that all is not well. It is better to know this than go on as we might in denial of the reality of our condition.

But watching such films always leaves me frustrated. They tell the dark side of the human story, but leave out the most important part, which is that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” I suppose that the unbelieving artist can scarcely be blamed for not putting into his art what he does not know or accept. But I want to isolate what it is that separates a truly Christian approach to the sadness of life–the failure, brokenness, and evil that tinges all aspects of our being–from that of modern atheistic existential despair. For it is not a simple matter, or not as simple a matter as it seems at first. The latter often has much insight into the human condition, and what is most deeply wrong with us–more so, often, than much that goes by the name of Christian today. And yet, the modern world does not try the only solution that could really work, because it is somehow convinced that it does not work. I’m talking about trusting Jesus. I’m sorry if this notion has become corny or unbelievable, but I assure you that it is neither of those things. Rather, it is the most important thing a person could ever do. Jesus alone reveals God’s love for us, and Jesus alone is the hope for mankind. Jesus alone saves us from our isolation. George Fox wrote in his journal:

there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do; then, oh! then I heard a voice which said, “there is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition”; and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory.

To be alone in our own reality is a horrible thing, but we are never truly alone. Whether we isolate ourselves with our intellect, or with something else, Jesus Christ still always understands us, each of us. For he, though being God, walked among us. If God were only the god of the scientific imagination, he would certainly know how we work, how our atoms move to make us what we are, how the particles of our brains interact in order to make us behave in the way that we do. But that is only one sort of knowing, and a rather weak and impersonal sort at that. Moving beyond even the perfect scientific knowledge that God must possess, God already knows everything about our experience, every thought and feeling. He is, in that sense, the “all-watching God,” the God of the existentialist’s imagination. But simply knowing intimately what goes on in our heads is not what he accomplished in the incarnation, in being made man. God could still be said to know everything about us, even beyond how we work in a scientific sense, and yet not really know us as he does in and through Christ.

Can you see how it must remain fundamentally different for God to know everything about us but still not have truly been one of us?  I admit, I only see this vaguely; it is certainly a mystery. But I see that it is not a deficiency on his part, but rather part of the nature of a world that he himself created. It is how he comes to us. The God who became a man did so to know us in a new way, and also to reveal who he is, and also to reveal who we might be. Because God incarnate was love incarnate. He showed us that our true purpose and end as human beings is to constantly give ourselves away–our whole persons, to him and to each other–in love, as Christ did, and does.

To always give ourselves away to God and to each other–then, beholding the face of God, instead of being misunderstood, we will be known. This same Jesus who literally rose from the dead promised to raise the dead, literally. And to restore the creation itself, literally: to bring about a world in which this whole set up is actually realized, the world as it is meant to be. Everything does not all turn to dust in the end. Jesus knows sadness, knows what it feels like to have the world collapsing around him. He who “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” He who “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried” He who “descended into hell.” That same Jesus rose again from the dead, and is “seated on the right hand of God the Father,” and has promised to wipe away every tear. I want the modern world to know this Jesus Christ, the one who died and the one who was raised, and the one who provides an eternal hope. I want the modern world to know that there is an answer, a real answer, to its pain–an answer in the love of Jesus.

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